Toronto’s top tourism marketer on why (and how) they created the sound of the city

What, exactly, is the sound of Toronto? Is it the distinctive bing-bong-bing chimes of the TTC? The ceaseless pounding emanating from the Eglinton Crosstown construction project? How about “OK Blue Jays” during the seventh-inning stretch at Rogers Centre? Or maybe Russell Oliver’s “Cashman” jingle?

Finding an audio representation of Canada’s largest city was a challenge that the city’s marketing arm, Destination Toronto, handed to Oakville, Ont.’s Audio Branding in February of 2020. The idea was to create a sonic representation of the city, an “audible logo” that could be appended to the increasing amount of video content it was putting out (and which is housed on the content hub).

While Destination Toronto has developed a clearly articulated voice in its written and visual materials, that voice hadn’t previously been expressed in an audio context, says CMO and executive vice-president Jon Mamela. “[Sound] wasn’t something we had given consideration to, but as we create more and more video content, we realized that being consistent in the way we use sound could, over time, be another component in telling Toronto’s story.”

Fittingly, the new sound is a six-note mnemonic—an audio representation of the six-syllable phrase “Welcome to Toronto”— using a combination of piano, synths and pads. It’s in the key of E Major, using the notes C#, G#, B, E, B, G#. It made its first appearance in a 60-second hero video called “This is Toronto,” for which Audio Branding also provided the soundtrack (see and hear it below).

“Interpreted through the theory of musical equilibration, this chord/arpeggio is an expression of profound togetherness; a feeling of warmth and solace,” said Audio Branding’s CMO Shez Mehra in a recent LinkedIn post about the project. “Just the kind of place Toronto happens to be.”

The fact that a mnemonic created for a city that has been dubbed “The 6ix” ended up being six notes was simply a happy coincidence, says Mamela. Audio Branding had provided the Destination Toronto brand team with suggestions that were both longer and shorter, and it took several months of research, testing and measurement to arrive at the final sound.

“It wasn’t an immediate home run where we nailed it on the first try,” he says. “It’s pretty subjective, but you know something is right when you hear it. It’s a funny thing to say that something doesn’t sound like us.” The final product, he says, is literally a note-perfect encapsulation of what Destination Toronto wanted to convey.

“When I listen to it, it’s uplifting, it’s positive, and has a tonality of joy,” says Mamela. “It [evokes] playfulness and curiosity, which are elements of our brand voice. It feels true to what we’ve defined in terms of our brand guidelines, but it also felt true to the city.”

Sonic branding has been adopted by a range of brands over the years, with companies/entities as varied as Rogers, Bell, McDonald’s, OLG, even the Government of Canada, all attaching four, five or six-note mnemonics to their communications.

Yet marketers have not fully embraced sonic branding. In a 2020 study entitled The Power of You: Why distinctive brand assets are a driving force of creative effectiveness, Ispos analyzed 2,015 pieces of video creative across 10 categories. It found that sonic branding appeared in only 6% of video ads (compared to 91% that used a logo and 45% that used a slogan), and concluded that “audio is a “missed opportunity.”

The study noted that creative using audio brand assets (assets are defined as “the cues and signals of a brand that leverage non-verbal based stimuli, such as visual colours, logos, characters, celebrities, audio devices and music, scents/tastes when using the brand or product”) was 3.44 times more likely to be among the highest performing ads, and those using sonic branding in particular were 8.53 times more likely to be high performing.

“As a marketer, your first concern is to visually engage in ‘sound off’ and thumb-stopping media placements,” said Ipsos. “However, this is perhaps not thinking about the wider value such assets can deliver, especially sonic cues such as the McDonald’s and Intel ‘stings.'”

The Intel sting is arguably the most famous of all the sonic stings introduced in recent decades. Since debuting in 1994, the five-note mnemonic has become entwined with the brand, and its introduction has been described as a key moment in the evolution of audio branding.

“[A]t a time when the traditional sung jingle was beginning to sound passé, Intel appeared to offer a less corny, more concise, but equally effective alternative,” wrote Jamie Masters, head of audio branding strategy at Adelphoi Music last year. A group of employees from Intel Finland even recreated the sound using giant cannons and chimes.

Examples of cities and/or tourist destinations using sonic branding aren’t as common, however. “In my past I never heard the discussion come up,” says Mamela, a longtime travel marketer whose career has included stops at Destination Canada, Travel Alberta, Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts, and Fairmont Hotels & Resorts. “There were brands that might have had certain songs done, but not as a brand element.”

Dubai’s Road and Transport Authority enlisted creative music agency MassiveMusic—which counts KLM, Philips and the English Premier League among its clients— to create a soundscape encompassing its various brand elements last year,  while Amsterdam’s tourism body, I Amsterdam, created a sound collage called “Sounds of the City” that puts people inside the city and its various cultural institutions and experiences.

Mehra became acquainted with audio’s ability to move people in his pre-marketing career DJing at clubs and events around the world. “In all of these places, whether it was China or anywhere, I was taking people on this physiological and emotional journey through sound alone,” he says.

Mehra believes it is possible to build brand equity through sound, but it hasn’t always been easy to convince clients of the role audio can play. “Nobody was really paying true attention to sound, or it was always an afterthought,” he says. “But I understood how strong an affinity sound and music can build. It’s literally the first sense we develop.”

Mamela, meanwhile, says the plan is for the new six note mnemonic to be baked into all of Destination Toronto’s marketing collateral going forward. While the theme will remain consistent, there will be variations around specific aspects of the city such as its pro sports teams or even cultural events like the Taste of the Danforth Greek festival.

“It hopefully adds a positive emotive response to any of the marketing materials that are out there,” says Mamela. “It’s designed to be a little bit of a destination halo—a trigger for people that gives them thoughts and a positive perception [of the city].”

And hey, it beats the howls of despair from Leafs fans after yet another ignominious first-round exit from the playoffs.

Chris Powell